This past weekend, newly crowned Miss USA Deshauna Barber became an overnight sensation due in large part to a single answer she delivered during the competition, but that wasn't the only way that she has and will continue to make an impact.
When asked during the pageant whether integrating women into combat roles "put political correctness over our military's ability to perform," the 26-year-old Army reservist said, "We are just as tough as men. As a commander of my unit, I'm powerful, I am dedicated and it is important that we recognize that gender does not limit us in the United States." The comment drew rapturous applause, boosted her to victory and won her fans across the country. With her unconventional background and non-traditional looks, Barber inspired response from women of color, particularly darker-hued African-Americans, that surprised even her.
"I was actually very shocked at that. Cause there were a lot of girls that messaged me, a lot of girls that have reached out to me on my social media accounts, that were saying, 'Oh my gosh I'm a dark-skinned, chocolate woman and I'm so excited that you're Miss USA,'" Barber told MSNBC on Thursday. "And I think it's really sad because it goes to show that we really do live in a world where darker women such as myself feel as though we're not pretty based on what we see on the television. And that's really unfortunate because beauty comes in all shades."
Barber says that she is glad that she has been able to inspire other women of color, some of whom have informed her they plan to get into the pageant business themselves now because of her, and she hopes that her success will lift the spirits of all women who feel marginalized.
"If we look at the race of women who have won [Miss USA] over the past 20 years, every year is different ... it just shows how diverse they want they want their representatives to be," she said. "I'm glad that they thought I would be a good Miss USA and I want to inspire women my color, all types of women with [different] economic backgrounds, different religious backgrounds, women from all over this country to consider pageants, and even if its not pageants, to chase their dreams and never think that how you look is a reason you can't achieve that dream."
Growing up in a proud military family — her parents met in the army — the world of beauty pageants was the farthest thing from Barber's mind. In fact, she had never even watched one before she was approached about participating. She was 19 at the time and working at a summer job at Target. Barber had made a commitment to the military at 17, joining the ROTC program at her alma mater Virginia State University. Eventually, she rose up the ranks to become a quartermaster officer, platoon leader, executive officer and later a commander in her battalion, and while she has high praise for her time in the armed forces, she found the experience of competing in pageants to be a liberating one.
"I fell in love with it," she said. "I think why I like pageants so much is because it's the opposite of what I do full-time. It gives me the opportunity to get in touch with that girly side that never existed when I was a kid because with mom and dad, both being army, they both were really tough ... and the make-up, the hair, that wasn't really big in my house, or my childhood."
But Barber's pursuit of the Miss USA title isn't purely a frivolous one. She wants to use her platform — she will now be representing America in the Miss Universe pageant — to raise awareness about the plight of veterans in this country.
"We have a lot of these situations where these veterans who come back from deployment and they're fighting mental battles that no one sees," she said. "It's important for our families and the friends of these veterans to pay attention because they're only required a certain amount of hours of counseling after deployment, and for some soldiers that's just not enough because not every soldier has the same experience when they are overseas. Some people are in combat a little bit more than others so it's incredibly important that we catch those signs, when they're acting a little bit weird we go and call their chain of command, we call their commander."
"As soldiers, we're taught to be tough," she added. "So when you're dealing with these mental battles, you don't want to say anything because you think people are going to make fun of you, that going to a psychologist is a problem. And I want to bring awareness to that fact, that these soldiers need to recognize the fact that there are going to be issues that you encounter, and it's OK to ask for help."
She also wants to help shake up the image of women in the military. Although she says she has not experienced prejudice in the pageant circuit, she admits that she has encountered bigotry and sexism while serving in the army.
"It's a great organization to be in. But obviously there are going to be situations as a woman and as an African-American woman where you run into some discrimination, you run into some sexism. You run into situations where, being in a room full of males as a female, people automatically assume that you're weaker or that you're not well-spoken, or a pushover," she said. "So you really do have to prove yourself in that sort of environment. You have to remain extremely tough or you're going to be looked down on, they're gonna make sly comments to you. You have to be very tough in that type of setting."
The fact that Barber has a skinnier, slighter frame doesn't help in that regard either. She believes that having a figure like hers contradicts many stereotypes people have about women in the military.
"They assume that we're very masculine women. People assume that women in the Army aren't attractive, that we're not beautiful," she said. "So when they find out I am in the Army they're like 'What, you're so pretty' and I look at them like, 'What does that mean?'"
"There are very beautiful women in the military, gorgeous women and just because we choose to serve our country doesn't mean we can't be pretty," she added. "I never wanted to model, I've always wanted to be a soldier, and just because I'm attractive it doesn't mean that it's an industry I can't be in."
Still, despite her stands on equality in the military, Barber isn't quite ready yet to embrace the label of "feminist."
"I want to really research and define the word," she said. "I understand what the word means in terms of being a feminist, but I want to make sure if I decide to call myself that, that I really am defined as that. I am obviously big on making sure that females understand that we are capable of everything. I just feel like feminist is a big word and I just want to make sure I understand it completely before I go claim it."
Although she is on the fence about being a feminist, she is unequivocally proud of Hillary Clinton's historical accomplishment this week — becoming the first woman to be a presumptive presidential nominee of a major political party.
"I think it's awesome and I congratulate her for all her achievements. I think she's a great representation of women, but I'm still very much undecided on who I would like to be president," she said. "I very much look forward to the presidential debates and being able to see who is able to really master a lot of the topics — especially on veteran's affairs."